Debate Club: Alien vs Blade Runner

Debate Club: Which Ridley Scott film is better, Blade Runner or Alien?

Contributed by
Dec 13, 2017

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this installment, we’re paying tribute to two of director Ridley Scott’s greatest films, which are also among the finest sci-fi films ever conceived. But if you had to choose only one, what would you go with: Alien or Blade Runner?

THE CASE FOR ALIEN

There had been sci-fi horror films before this 1979 stunner. But it’s pretty easy to make the case that Alien profoundly changed how we thought of the genre. More of a drama than a typical gore-fest, the movie slowly introduces us to its ensemble cast so that we get to know each of the characters pretty well—which only makes the eventual appearance of that gnarly extra-terrestrial all the more upsetting as it starts killing the crew members one by one.

Alien is scary as hell, but Scott was also a master of creating gnawing, suffocating dread. (Even when we don’t see the alien on screen, we’re petrified that it might strike at any moment.) In the process, the film introduced us to one of the great sci-fi characters, Sigourney Weaver’s resilient Ripley, not to mention a classic tagline with “In space, no one can hear you scream.” And Alien’s legacy can still be felt throughout Hollywood—not just in the many sequels and prequels it’s spawned, but also in unofficial remakes like this year’s so-so Life. There’s no escaping this terrifying monster.

THE CASE FOR BLADE RUNNER

There had been dozens, hundreds, of science fiction future dystopian hellscapes in movies before Blade Runner. So then why doesn’t it feel like there were? The world that Scott created in Blade Runner is so hypnotic and all-encompassing that it’s a dragon we’re still chasing nearly three decades later. (The sequel was less an extension of the story than it was just an excuse to hang out some more in the landscape Scott had created.)

Think about all the movies that exist simply because Blade Runner was invented, the directors and production designers who were so mesmerized by it that they built on it and created whole new worlds of their own. And for all the talk about how the story didn’t exactly hold up compared to those visuals, consider this: The idea of humans becoming increasingly reliant on technology, to the point that you begin to question what precisely being a human is, and who is in fact in charge here, is not a notion that has become less relevant in the last 30 years. Blade Runner didn’t just predict our world; it may, in fact, have played a part in shaping it.

THE CASE AGAINST ALIEN

So here’s a theoretical problem with Alien being Ridley Scott’s best movie: James Cameron went out, with the same characters and the same alien and the same sense of isolation and fear, and made a better movie just seven years later. Doesn’t Alien lose just a little bit when it was topped immediately?

In many ways, Alien feels like a test run for Aliens: the creation of a world, a species and a specific set of rules, just to be a set-up for another visionary director to show up and play around with everything Alien created. The movie is awfully slow, purposefully so, but in a way that feels far more archaic than Blade Runner does today. How much did Alien inspire? Arguably only Aliens.

THE CASE AGAINST BLADE RUNNER

Blade Runner is a visionary cinematic achievement. But we’ll say it plain: As an actual narrative experience, it’s not that amazing. Scott has famously released several different edits of the film, and while they’re all better than the studio-mandated original cut with its terrible voiceover and lame “happy” ending, Deckard (Harrison Ford) has never emerged as an incredibly dynamic or interesting main character. And while it may be snide to say, if Blade Runner’s ultimate point is that we’ve lost our humanity thanks to technology, no stronger evidence is required than the fact that the movie’s characters are all pretty dreary.

Blade Runner asks us to be swept up in the doomed love affair between Deckard and Rachael (Sean Young), but that notion is mostly intellectual, not emotional—which is also how the rest of the film plays out. People who worship Blade Runner talk about its ideas way more than they do its characters or emotional content.

DECISION

This may be controversial, but we’d argue that, with both of these films, the sequel was better. (Aliens’ intensity tops Alien’s cold dread, while Blade Runner 2049’s grandeur and emotional sweep beats Blade Runner’s future-shock prescience.) That’s its own separate fight, though, so let’s just focus on the Scott films for now.

We’re gonna go with Alien, for a couple reasons. One: Ripley absolutely rules. Weaver would play her more as an all-powerful badass in the sequels, but in Alien, she’s a little more human, which makes her heroism exciting, harrowing, and inspiring. Two: As a thriller, Blade Runner just isn’t as taut or interesting. Blade Runner may have changed our world, but Alien is the better, richer film. And its H.R. Giger-designed villain is just as nightmare-inducing 38 years later.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.